Vive La Similarity | Teachers College Columbia University

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Vive La Similarity

The study of brains reveals how similar we all are and evokes our common humanity.

by Karen Froud

In Cambodia, where I often work, a tee-shirt sold at every tourist market stall proclaims “Same Same…But Different.”

In a world obsessed with difference, those words, for me, express the real miracle: how similar we all are and how such seeming variety can be understood to reflect our common humanity.

In my lab, where students from many disciplines study electroencephalography—the recording of electrical activity produced when brain neurons fire—I emphasize that we all are working with brains. We study a diverse range of phenomena, including the effects of socioeconomic disadvantage on learning; the effects of meditation on cognitive function; responses of language learners to different teaching methods or ongoing immersion; perception of sounds by those who have speech production disorders; processing of language in cultures that distinguish between “higher” and “lower” language varieties; and much more. All are linked by the fact that the brain generates an individual’s experience of them. And what becomes clear, after a while, is that all brains are pretty much the same. There’s variation, of course—gender distinctions in brain structure, developmental changes in brain function, fascinating cases of pathology that open new windows for understanding both typical and disordered function. But the similarities far outweigh those differences.

So let’s imagine, when we think we are examining the ways in which humans differ, that in fact we are really trying to understand the ways in which we are all the same. Let’s imagine that the vast complexity and diversity of human experience can ultimately be understood in terms of deeply simple and unifying principles. Let’s imagine that, by trying to uncover such principles, we can begin to understand the universality of human experience, and that by doing so we lose none of the richness and diversity, but instead gain new insight into our interconnectedness and what it means to be human. Let’s imagine that, by imagining we are all deeply “same same,” we can better understand and respect and express the ways that we are truly and uniquely different.

To see brain images Froud and her students have created, such as the one pictured here, and to read accompanying explanations, visit

Karen Froud is Associate Professor of Speech & Language Pathology.

Published Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010


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